Countertops and tiles made with recycled, post-consumer glass, metal or even paper are just a few of the hundreds of new, environmentally friendly kitchen products available. Choices for stylish but sustainable, less-toxic paint, cabinet and flooring products are also exploding.
Why A Green Kitchen?
People want green kitchens for many reasons. Concerns about climate change, diminishing resources and the relative toxicity of some building materials are a big part of the mix. But there are also decidedly practical reasons for greening your kitchen. Green is considered by many to be the new standard of style and value in home design. Demand is growing among home-buyers for at least some elements of green-ness. And this demand is expected to increase in coming years. If you own your home and are planning to remodel your kitchen, you will want to consider the resale value of a green kitchen. Its a good bet that many buyers will be looking for kitchens designed with the health of their household as well as the planet in mind, kitchens made with non-toxic components, that use sustainably produced and/or recycled material wherever possible, and that integrate best environmental practices into their design and construction. A new kitchen that doesn’t meet these criteria is in danger of being seen as less than perfect. And who wants a less-than-perfect kitchen?
What Makes a Kitchen Green?
Kitchens come in many shades of green and there are always trade-offs between the ideal and the practical, but anyone creating a kitchen today needs to think through the larger impact of their choices. Many states and/or cities require energy-saving appliances and lighting fixtures in any new or remodeled kitchen. But energy savings represent only the first step in getting to a green kitchen. Perhaps more important is the use of sustainable materials and of products with fewer emissions of formaldehyde or other toxic volatile chemicals.
Cabinets and flooring should be made with environmentally managed or reclaimed wood and in a ways that create minimum environmental impact. Countertops and backsplashes that use recycled glass, stone, paper or metal are a great improvement over those that don’t. Recycling and even composting containers should be designed into the new plan. Finally, the design and construction of the space should be done in ways that minimize waste. Don’t build a bigger kitchen than you realistically need for everyday use and recycle any elements of your old kitchen that you can. Sell or give away old but usable components and properly dispose of the waste.
Ironically, one of the greenest flooring products around is good, old-fashioned linoleum—the originally kind, which is made of wood by-products and natural resins, not the vinyl sheet products often mistakenly referred to as linoleum.
Environmentally friendly cabinets are available in every style and from many sources, including everything from your friendly local cabinet maker who does custom work to major manufacturers who produce green cabinets built to standard sizes and specifications.
The cabinets you choose define your kitchen more than anything else. They are the biggest, most obvious and most expensive part of any design. By themselves they’ll pretty much determine the look and cost of a kitchen, so choose well. Environmentally speaking, cabinets present two major concerns: where the materials come from and the relative toxicity of the glues, resins and finishes they are made with. Choosing cabinets made with good wood is fairly straight forward. Look for cabinets that contain sustainably grown and harvested woods certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), which tracks wood from forest to mill to lumberyard to ensure that it comes from sustainable sources. Some small shops also offer cabinets made of reclaimed wood salvaged from old buildings. Any reclaimed wood is green because it is being used again instead of going into a landfill or up into the air as smoke.
To find out about the stuff beneath the wood veneers or used to finish them, you need to dig a little harder. Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, has traditionally been a large component of plywood, and new cabinets can outgas formaldehyde for months and even years. Paint, polyurethane and lacquer likewise emit volatile organic compounds (VOGs). Try to find cabinets that are GreenGuard certified to have low levels of any of these.
Once you’ve got cabinets, choose pulls and hardware from manufacturers, like Rocky Mountain Hardware and Top Knobs, who make their products with a high recycled metal content. Or find an antique or architectural salvage dealer who carries a stock of used cabinet pulls and recycle them on your new cabinets.
Because they occupy prime visual space in any kitchen, countertops, with their long flat, and much-abused horizontal surfaces need to be both strikingly good looking and fantastically durable. Filling these roles with materials that are also green can be tough. But the task is getting much easier with all the new, well-designed products in a huge array of colors and textures, that are appearing on the market every year. Brands like TrendQ, PaperStone, fuez, Vertrazzo, ecotop, Squak Mountain and Eco by Cosentino offer slab countertop materials made from recycled glass, paper, wood fibers, stone and even metal, and held together with earth- and people-friendly cements and binders.
You can create a stunning, modern backsplash with tiles made from 85% recycled glass or create a classic country, but green, design with sinks like this, made with 90% recycled bronze or aluminum.
While the classic kitchen sink made of enamel-covered cast iron or of stainless-steel are not terribly-ungreen and often use a lot of recycled content as a standard procedure, there are other choices. Manufacturers of strictly recycled or aluminum sinks, such as Eleek, certify their recycled content to be at least 90%. You can also buy sinks made from composites of recycled materials and concrete from manufacturers like Vitra Stone and Lithistone, but styles are limited.
Create an artful backsplash from tiles made of recycled glass from manufacturers like OceanSide Glass Tiles, TrendQ or Hakatai. Eleek offers tiles made of recycled metals. Traditional ceramic tiles made with high recycled glass content are available from FireClay. Eco-Body and EcoCycle. Ceramic tiles from mass-market manufacturers like American Olean and Villeroy & Boch are also environmentally benign, with stable products that don’t outgas and which are made through low-impact processes.
Even if you live in a place where it isn’t required, you should only choose appliances that are Energy Star rated; Tier I is good, Tier II is better. Wherever possible use Compact Fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, which save significant amounts of energy and are now available with brighter, whiter output and even come in dimmable models. LED and Halogen lights are also greener than anything with an incandescent bulb.
Stylish choices for environmentally-friendly flooring abounds. Many of the manufacturers of tiles made of recycled materials also make floor tiles in 12-inch square sizes or larger. Prefinished engineered-wood flooring made from sustainable sources is a popular choice. Cork flooring is also a green choice because only the bark is harvested and the tree lives on to produce more cork. It is coated with hard resins when used in flooring, so don’t expect squishy soft cork underfoot if you choose this.
Bamboo flooring is considered green option because bamboo grows very quickly and densely, and therefore consumes fewer resources for cultivation and harvesting. Another environmental flooring choice that our grandparents knew well is linoleum, which is made with wood by-products and natural wood-based resins. It is available in sheets and tiles. It should not be confused with similar vinyl products which are often mistakenly described as linoleum.